“The Lord of the Rings” movie saga made Viggo Mortensen a very big star -- proof for anyone who needs it that he can command just about any kind of role. Tracy Smith has our Sunday Profile:
Strider: “I can avoid being seen if I wish, but to disappear entirely, that is a rare gift.”
Frodo: “Who are you?”
Strider: “Are you frightened?”
Strider: “Not nearly frightened enough. I know what hunts you.”
Watching his bold heroics in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it’s clear the camera loves Viggo Mortensen. But the soft-spoken actor isn’t so sure whether the feeling is mutual.
“The camera’s your friend,” he said. “But it’s like this person that’s there that doesn’t talk. But they have really good eyesight! So you should be on your toes. It’s this mute, hawkeyed friend that doesn’t know how to keep a secret,” he laughed.
“I’m not afraid of it,” he added.
Making friends with the camera has turned Mortensen into a respected movie star, with roles ranging from blockbuster king to art house villain, with some sparks along the way.
But his most recent movie, “Captain Fantastic,” finds Mortensen -- who has a 28-year-old son -- playing a part he says he’s more comfortable with these days: a dad.
“I play a father of six children, and we live off the grid; we live in the middle of the forest in the northwest of the United States,” he said. “Something tragic happens which makes them have to leave the forest. When they leave the forest and meet other kids, other families, see towns, see cities, they’re socially inept, which is understandable.”
Zaja (Shree Crooks): “What’s wrong with everyone?”
Vespyr (Annalise Basso): “Are they sick?”
Ben (Mortensen): “What do you mean?”
Nai (Charlie Shotwell): “Everyone’s so fat.”
Nai: “Fat like hippos.”
Zaja: “That’s not nice to say.”
Nai: “But look!”
The movie’s getting good reviews and lots of awards buzz for Mortensen, but in typical dad fashion, he wants to share all the credit with his young cast mates.
“You’ll fall in love with these six kids,” he said. “I mean, they’re beautiful.”
Mortensen’s own childhood was an international one. Born in Manhattan (his mother was American, his father Danish), he spent his first decade of life in South America (Argentina mostly). When his parents divorced, he moved with his mom to upstate New York.
Smith asked, “When you were a kid, what’d you want to be when you grew up?”
“A crow was probably what I wanted to be most of all.”
“Really? Why is that? What is it about crows?
“They’re survivors. They can live anywhere. They’re very self-sufficient. They’re very resourceful. They’re adaptable.”
“That sounds like you.”
“Yeah!” he laughed.
And could he live off the grid? “Yeah,” he said.
Today, the divorced actor splits his time between Spain (where his girlfriend lives) and wherever work is -- always making sure he can get outdoors, often alone.
“Some people, if they’re not on the phone or hearing the radio or interacting with somebody every half-hour or so, then they start to get nervous,” Mortensen said. “It’s like, ‘Where is everybody?’ I’m glad nobody’s here, personally! Except you and me.”
“Thanks for adding that, Viggo!”
He took an acting class on a whim in his early 20s, never expecting it’d become a career.
But a small part in “Witness,” the Oscar-winning 1985 film starring Harrison Ford, got him noticed. And from there, the jobs just kept coming, including a drug informant in “Carlito’s Way” with Al Pacino (“They made me do it. Or they send me back. I’m no good in the joint. I’m in a f***ing wheelchair, Carlito!”); and as a drill instructor in “G.I. Jane” with Demi Moore (“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A bird will fall frozen dead from a bough, without ever having felt sorry for itself”).
But the role of Strider, a.k.a. Aragorn, he nearly turned down. Cast at the last minute, Mortensen was unsure he could do the part. But his son, Henry, who was 11 at the time, told him to grasp the “Ring.”
“He said, ‘Dad, you should do that.’ And I was explaining, ‘Well, it’ll take a long time. I’m not really ready.’ He says, ‘You’ll figure it out. You should do it. It could be good.’”
“And your son convinced you?”
“He was right, yeah.”
“And what was his review?”
“Fortunately it was good. He liked it.”
And so did just about everyone else. The film trilogy is one of the most successful franchises of all time, and turned Mortensen into an international movie star.
“I mostly look at it as a positive thing, this attention that we all got from the extraordinary success of ‘Lord of the Rings,’” he said. “Because it gave me opportunities, it gave me more options, more stories to pick from.”
And a chance to tell a few stories of his own.
With money he made from “Lord of the Rings,” Mortensen was able to start his own publishing company, Perceval Press, where he can help out lesser-known stars in other fields.
He showed Smith a copy of a book by California poet Scott Wannberg. “This is a typical book of ours. Something that might not have been published otherwise, and certainly not in this way.”
It’s also an outlet for Mortensen’s other talents: poetry and painting, photography and music.
And he’s found poetic moments in his acting career, too. When his role in 2007’s “Eastern Promises” got him a slew of Best Actor nominations, he brought his movie-loving mom as his date.
“The best experience that season, where I was nominated for that movie, was the SAG Awards, because I took my mom,” he said. “Anybody I knew would come over: ‘Is this your mom?’ ‘Yup!’
“She would say, ‘That’s so-and-so. He directed this and that and that. And that’s John Travolta! Hang on a second,’ and she got up and walked over, and she goes, ‘Hello.’ And then she’s pointing over to me and said, ‘That’s my son.’ And I was like, ‘Wow...’ That was great.
“She’s gone now. But we did do that. Really, that was a special, very memorable experience.”
Now with “Captain Fantastic,” there’s talk he’ll be nominated for some big awards once again. But whatever happens next, Viggo Mortensen says he’s already won.
“As far as acting, I mean, if ‘Captain Fantastic’ was my last role, I’ve had a good run. That wouldn’t be too bad a way to go out, you know? But you never know.”
To watch a trailer for “Captain Fantastic” click on the video player below.
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